Budget Cuts May Force Closure of Some Bases
Searching for new ways to cut federal spending, Congress may finally be ready to butcher one of its most sacred cows--outdated and unneeded military bases.
“We no longer need to guard the Pony Express routes to the Wild West. We no longer need to maintain moated forts to guard against assault by British sailing ships,” Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) said.
“We all know why these unnecessary bases have been kept open,” Roth said. “They have been maintained for selfish political reasons in order to maintain a flow of defense dollars into our states. But the budgetary good times are gone. We simply cannot justify throwing money away.”
Roth is the chief sponsor of a measure approved last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee as an amendment to next year’s Pentagon budget bill.
Roth’s proposal would create a nine-member commission, appointed by the secretary of defense, to look at bases around the country and recommend, solely on the basis of national security, which ones should be kept open. The secretary would then be free to implement those recommendations, unless specifically reversed by Congress.
The same plan has been introduced in the House by Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.).
Roth and Armey cite various estimates from previous studies that closing unneeded bases could save between $2 billion and $5 billion a year.
Bases mean jobs, and legislators have been loath to see payrolls cut. In the decades after World War II, the Pentagon was generally allowed to do as it pleased on the issue, with the exception of a handful of bases protected by key members of Congress. Between 1961 and 1977, the Defense Department cut or closed 3,600 installations and saved an estimated $5 billion a year.
But in 1975 the Air Force proposed shutting down Loring Air Force Base, a B-52 base in northern Maine that the service said was unneeded. Maine’s congressional delegation succeeded in winning congressional approval for a new law that required costly environmental studies--up to $1 million each--for any Pentagon attempt to close a base.
The studies were also lengthy and gave critics opposed to shutting a base plenty of ammunition. But requirements for the studies would be waived under the pending commission proposal.
Since 1975, no major military installations have been closed. In 1979 the Pentagon proposed mothballing 157 facilities and laying off 45,000 personnel but dropped the plan in the face of congressional opposition.
Six years later, then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger suggested 22 installations that he said could be shut, but Congress reacted strongly again and the idea went nowhere.
Plans Have Political Factor
Politics cuts both ways, Armey said. Last year, Republican congressmen said 28 bases could be closed but 27 of them were in districts represented in the House by Democrats. In 1986, Weinberger said three more facilities could be closed, but they were all in the districts of Democrats critical of Weinberger; his idea was never seriously considered.
Last year, Armey lost by a 199-192 vote when he tried to put his base-closure amendment into the Pentagon budget bill.
But the atmosphere is different this year, partly because of congressional agreement that the military budget is one of the few places left to look in the effort to find spending cuts. His plan now has 112 co-sponsors.
The chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees suggest that this year’s opportunity to close bases is a unique one.
“This is probably an area of waste and inefficiency that can be seized this year, unlike any other year,” Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said.
‘A Good Chance This Year’
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) agreed. “There’s a good chance this year because of a variety of circumstances,” he said. But he added: “Even though we’ve got a lot of people on board on this, there’s still a lot of opposition.”
Under the commission plan, the panel would have to make its recommendations by Dec. 31. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, who supports the idea, would have 15 days to accept or reject the entire list. That decision would be made only five days before the Reagan Administration leaves office.
“You’ve got a secretary of defense who’s willing to make a choice as he leaves office,” Aspin said. “That’s a big factor.”
The House will consider Armey’s plan within the next month, Aspin said.